One of the less well-known parts of the history of particle physics is the involvement of many prominent theorists in research (often classified) conducted for the U.S. military through an organization known as “Jason”. My advisor at Princeton (Curt Callan) would disappear for a couple months each year to La Jolla and I remember hearing about Jason from various people back then. Unlike at Harvard, quite a few of the faculty at Princeton from those days were involved with Jason at one time or another (besides Callan these included Sam Treiman, Freeman Dyson, Roger Dashen, Val Fitch and Will Happer), and this showed itself in various ways, including an unusual degree of interest among Princeton physics professors in the question of how sound propagates in the ocean.
There’s a new book out about the group, written by Ann Finkheimer and entitled The Jasons: The Secret History of Science’s Postwar Elite. It’s based on many interviews with Jasons, and tells the story of the group very much from their point of view.
Jason was founded in 1959, with funding from ARPA (now DARPA, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), and was nominally associated with IDA (Institute for Defense Analyses). It followed on various other attempts to set up theorists as consultants to the defense department, attempts whose organizers included Wheeler and Wigner. Charles Townes was largely responsible for starting Jason, but its first chairman was Murph Goldberger, and it was his wife who gave the group its name (based on Jason and the Argonauts, in search of the golden fleece). Murray Gell-Mann was a member of the initial steering committee.
Members of Jason gather each year for a summer session of working on various projects, some involving classified military research, some not. About half the reports they generate are unclassified. For a selection of these, and to get some idea of the sort of thing they work on, see here. In recent years the group has branched out to study many topics involving biology, and to include many non-physicists (mathematician Fields medalist Michael Freedman is rumored to have been a member).
In 2002 DARPA stopped funding Jason, in a fight over an attempt by DARPA to impose some new members on the group that they didn’t want. This led to the group getting a new funding source: DDR&E, the umbrella for all defense research.
Over the years Jason has worked on many different topics, including anti-submarine warfare (thus the interest in how sound travels in the ocean), ballistic missile defense, adaptive optics and many, many others. It was most controversial during the Vietnam war, when as many as nine Jasons (including Sam Treiman and Steven Weinberg) resigned for a variety of reasons, from moral objections to the war to feelings that they were not doing anything effective.
The Finkbeiner book doesn’t really do justice to the difficult moral issues involved in Jason’s activities during the Vietnam War years. One early Jason report on Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Southeast Asia, by four authors including Freeman Dyson and Steven Weinberg, reached the rather obvious conclusion that the use of nuclear weapons in guerilla warfare wasn’t a very good idea. It’s not clear who if anyone at the Pentagon thought otherwise. For extensive background about this, see here.
Much of Jason’s activity during the Vietnam War involved attempts to set up an electronic barrier to stop the North Vietnamese from infiltrating troops and supplies to the South. This was partly motivated by the fact that it had become clear to the military that bombing the North wasn’t working, something that Jason knew, but was not revealed to the American people until the release of the Pentagon papers by Daniel Ellsberg. As part of the electronic barrier effort, Murray Gell-Mann spent time in the jungle in Panama testing out various pieces of equipment. For a very different perspective on the question of Jason and Vietnam from that of the Finkheimer book, see the 1972 article The Story of Jason from the web-site of Charlie Schwartz at Berkeley.
Many of Jason’s most successful reports over the years have played the role of shooting down a bad idea (like nuclear weapons as a counter-insurgency tool). For a recent example, see the Hafnium bomb, which is the subject of a forthcoming book entitled Imaginary Weapons : A Journey Through the Pentagon’s Scientific Underworld. It’s unclear what Jason’s current activities in classified military research consist of, but presumably counter-terrorism and how to fight insurgents in Iraq are two important topics. Despite the clear analogies with Vietnam, the war in Iraq has so far been a much less contentious issue in the U.S. One hopes that those physicists involved in helping the government pursue it will do better this time than the previous time around.
Update: There’s a review of the book by John Horgan in this week’s New York Times Book Review.
Update: For a right-wing ideologue review of the book, see the New York Sun, where the reviewer seems to believe the only problem with the Vietnam war was the “contemptible” people opposing it, “the ideologues on the left, who were busily dismantling the nation’s colleges and universities at that time.”